By: Cristina Pfeffer, JS Student
Davis’s thesis argues that the current prison system has become obsolete because it perpetuates the processes and ideologies of the very social institutions which civil rights movements across American history have fought to vanquish. Anachronistic, persistent ideologies ironically tout prisons as the most humane way in civilized society to punish people who have committed crimes while simultaneously being one of the few institutions that preserves the anti-progressive social institutions of racism, sexism, and class bias. Davis is effectively diagnosing a severely ill society for which the current method of punishment-via-imprisonment is often the prescribed medication, yet has proven to be no remedy.
The post-emancipation, racist frenzy that saw White prisoners decrease in number and inversely filled prisons with newly-freed Black persons is one argument that clearly demands a review of the institution’s objective, especially when considering this demographic trend of incarceration continues into the 21st century. The wording of the 13th amendment contradictorily abolished slavery and, along with state laws, ensured that actions of indigent Black Americans were quickly criminalized and policed, dropping them back into slave-like conditions in the “care” of the state. This provided a painfully successful means for capitalists to flourish. While much of colonial America’s infrastructure was constructed by slave labor, post-colonial America’s infrastructure and capitalist projects were achieved by chillingly-similar convict labor.
From a Marxist perspective, it appears that ruling class ideology successfully replaced morally-based arguments in favor of slavery with seemingly-rational, state-sanctioned exploitation of the same groups. When irrational ideology serving as justification of citizen maltreatment becomes buried within the realm of law and reason, it becomes difficult to challenge it, much less see the racist practices involved in policing, and thus imprisonment. Capitalists managed to mix a cocktail of ideologies, including humanitarianism, crime, and punishment to design an emerging “criminal” class of cheap, Black labor from which they could sample for their endeavors without paying the fee a slave-owner would have prior to emancipation. This solidified the wedge between races and between classes.
Contemporary, rampant capitalism offers corporations, and in some cases judges or other individual players, profit and nearly-free labor through the prison-industrial complex. The privatization of the prison system demonstrates state protection of ruling class interests, guaranteeing them profit under the blinding, free-market magician’s hand of neo-liberalism. Reversing this to remove the potential to generate wealth would mean the re-nationalization of the prison system, a socialist move with a likely ensuing tsunami backlash of opposition. Whether the tag of ownership reads private or public, the prison system is in desperate need of oversight for its policies and treatment of prisoners. If privately owned, the system needs truly democratic, public oversight from either a non-partisan government agency not accountable to corporations, or a public watchdog group.
Sexism and violence against women are also societal ills facilitated behind prison walls, reflecting the second-class status of women in larger society. The hypersexualization of women’s bodies is pervasive in American culture. For incarcerated women, hypersexualization coupled with criminal status and stigma lead many to dismiss these women as deserving of the punishment they endure, which often takes the form of sexual abuse from guards and physicians. Davis argues that domestic abuse in “free” society is the privatized abuse of women, while female experiences within prison walls demonstrate the institutionalized and state-sanctioned sexual abuse of women.
This mirroring effect between “free” and caged society is observed by many social theorists and brings to mind Foucault’s idea of “docile bodies.” Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison blueprints were designed to convey the invasive sense of always being under surveillance, which would compel prisoners to behave. Although most prisons are not built to these specifications, prisoners are constantly being monitored. This too has a mirrored effect in larger society, demonstrated by the frightening increase of the number of cameras on public streets, in private establishments, and even in individual hands. Whether the cameras exist for purposes of deterring crime or capturing memories, this incessant observation and the knowledge, or in some cases paranoia, of constantly being monitored becomes a behavioral deterrent, creating these “docile bodies” that act according to the standards of the power structure.
Societal surveillance, whether real or imagined, is so successful at deterring culturally-deemed inappropriate behavior because the threat of imprisonment looms menacingly over us. Current ideologies of crime and justice (punishment) become tools of social control- imprisonment remains the prevailing form of punishment, effects of punishment create socially and economically famished communities from which new prisoners are molded, thus creating an endless supply of profit for corporations, and a sickened society on futile medications. This is why Davis’s argument is so important. We cannot expect to take a progressive step forward and heal our ailing society or issue a ceasefire between classes if we still have in place a state-sanctioned, racist, sexist institution that jerks us two steps backward.
Another problem is the inevitable confusion as to how we will define justice apart from punishment. Can a society that glorifies self-sufficiency and rugged individualism really come to a consensus on a brand of justice that does not include vengeance? An idea like this seems far too utopian for America, and is divisive enough to create a chasm between conservatives and progressives that recalls cessation. Davis does not seem to be taking into account public opinion, especially that of the victimized public. It seems common to assume that the family of a murdered person will want immediate retribution. Altering this would demand reprioritizing our values to promote collectivism to subsequently quell the fire of individualism.
In addition to the reprioritization of values, crime must be redefined. Decriminalization of drug use is the most obvious step in this direction as there are an incredibly ridiculous amount of individuals incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. What these two remedies have in common is the need for an ideological shift maintained by education and the media, which would garner much opposition from the ruling class.
Forever the cynic, to me Davis’s prescriptions for our ailing society, wonderfully progressive though they may be, seem too far-fetched for a society in the grip of global capitalism. To implement them will likely take one of two things – (1) full-scale socialist revolution, or (2) centuries.
Tags: Angela Davis, Book Review, Prisons